Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Vocal Pedagogy, A History

Brent Jeffrey Monahan. The Art of Singing: A Compendium of Thoughts on Singing Published Between 1777 and 1927. Scarecrow Press, 1978.

Several times a year I will find myself reading something and think “where has this book been all my life?” Most often it’s been in some writer’s imagination waiting to be researched and written. But in the case of this book, it was sitting on the shelves of the libraries of several of the school I attended in addition to the one where I now teach! Just sitting there waiting for me to find it. It would even have been helpful a few months ago when I was putting together a list of treatises and vocalise books for Rachelle Jonck. I only found it thanks to another book (Austin’s Provenance, discussed last week) and as the saying goes, I didn’t know what I had been missing.

What I was expecting was a listing and brief description of treatises in the period covered. Yes, that’s part of it, but Monahan breaks down various topics covered in treatises and lists which authors take various views and cover which topics. I could have used this resource so many times when writing papers and preparing presentations for vocal pedagogy classes. This is a must for anyone writing about singing, teaching pedagogy or who is interested in the history of various approaches and methods related to singing. 

Topics covered cover a wide range: Vocal Pedagogy, Breathing, Phonation, Resonance, Range, Vocal Dynamics, Ear Training, Diction, and Interpretation. I’ll use registration as an example of a topic and how we can use this book as a resource. Beginning on page 133, Monahan walks us through a history of how various treatises broach the topic of vocal registers. This topic is covered extensively and continues through page 162. This discussion includes various descriptions of registers, how many registers, and the divergent ideas about registration. 

Also of interest is the extensive Bibliography. The Annotated Bibliography is 64 pages long! (The one I compiled for Rachelle Jonck a few months ago was only nine pages.) Following that is a chronological bibliography which would allow the researcher to focus on the treatises published in a particular era. There is so much information here, all of it very well organized.

Now that this book is 43 years old, it’s safe to say that it is in need of an update, but the coverage of historical writing on singing is thorough. I am finding this incredibly useful and have already updated some articles I am writing to include sources I would not have found without the help of this book. This is such a useful volume, and I am confident that many students and teachers will make good use of it. 

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

We’re not making this up, you know!

Stephen F. Austin. Provenance: Historic Voice Pedagogy Viewed through a Contemporary Lens. Inside View Press, 2017

In my participation in the various activities of Bel Canto Boot Camp one thing strikes me over and over: we’re not making this up! The ideas we espouse were the norm for most of the history of opera. They are well documented in the many treatises, method books and other writings about the art of singing. None of this is new or revolutionary. It is odd then that the first vocal pedagogy teacher I encountered in academia who taught vocal pedagogy with reference to historical sources was Dr. Stephen Austin at University of North Texas. There was even a class in which we read James Stark’s Bel Canto and Manuel Garcia II’s Treatise on the Art of Singing (both volumes!) and Hints on Singing. Bel canto is a long tradition. None of this is just something BCBC is making out of whole cloth. 

With that in mind, I am recommending this book. It is a collection of columns written for Journal of Singing between 2004 and 2016. If you are a NATS member, you already have access to these columns as well as those of Burton Coffin (Vocal Pedagogy Classics) from 1981-84 and Craig Timberlake (Practica Musicae) from 1993-97. If not, this collection is a valuable resource for anyone wishing to explore the many writings on music that is our heritage as singers and teachers. 

I am fascinated to see how good teaching and good science support each other. Truth doesn’t change over time. Neither do effective teaching methods. Even as styles have changed, the voice functions as it always has. Methods and ideas that were developed out of successful experience in any age have something to say to us today.  (p. ix)

Articles cover a wide range of topics:

  • Articulation (legato, staccato, spirito, marcato and martellato
  • Registration
  • Voce chiusa
  • The onset (coupe de la glotte)
  • Lutte vocale
  • Trill
  • Messa di voce
  • Appoggiatura
  • Vibrato
  • Resonance

Many historical pedagogues are surveyed including:

  • Manuel Garcia II
  • William Shakespeare (no, not THAT William Shakespeare!)
  • Julius Stockhausen
  • Carlo Bassani
  • Giovanni Battista Lamperti

There is a lot more, of course, and this volume only covers a fraction of the many writings on singing written by the master teachers of their age. A few favorites of mine are the four-part series on the criticism of Hermann Klein and the print version of Dr. Austin’s “stump speech “Building Strong Voices 12 Different Ways.” 

If you are new to historical sources for vocal pedagogy, this, along with James Stark’s Bel Canto, is an excellent place to start. The Provenance column in Journal of Singing continues, now written by Dr. Kimberly Broadwater. 

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves

Lynne Truss. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Gotham Books, 2003.

As a new semester begins, I am preparing for the eternal question from young singers, “Where do I breathe?” Where indeed. There is a limit to how long we can sing before we need to stop and take a breath, after all, but decisions as to where to breathe have more factors for consideration than that. Assuming the composer did not write in a rest or breath mark for us, how do we decide where we can and also where we cannot breathe?

One consideration is the poetry: in particular, the punctuation. A passage from a book I hold dear has stayed with me throughout the many years since I first read it. What I learned from Lynne Truss is that ancient texts did not have punctuation until around 200 BCE when Aristophanes of Byzantium (librarian at Alexandria) who is credited with creating “a three-part system of dramatic notation (involving single points at different heights on the line) advising actors when to breathe in preparation for a long bit, or a not so long bit, or a relatively short bit….” Those markings correspond to the modern period, semicolon and comma.

Punctuation was created to help people reading aloud. The many complex rules involving grammar would come later and continue to cause no end of headaches and disputes. Mention the so-called Oxford comma on social media to see what I mean. Truss takes on all manner of punctuation marks with a dry wit and a take-no-prisoners approach. She’s mad as hell (about apostrophes used to form plurals, among other ills) and isn’t going to take it anymore!

For a subject so nerdy, it is an enjoyable read, and for singers it has a particular relevancy because we are constantly having to decide how to group together words and pitches into groups in ways that make sense. As an added bonus, you will come away knowing how to confidently use a semicolon!

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Wagner without Fear

William Berger. Wagner without Fear: Learning to Love – and Even Enjoy – Opera’s Most Demanding Genius. Vintage Books, 1998.

Inspired by last Sunday’s Audiophile Society discussion of Wagnerian singing, I thought that I would recommend a book on Wagner. This is no easy task as there are thousands to choose from. If you don’t believe me, check the music section of any college library. There will be at least 2-3 shelves of books on Wagner, his musical works, his prose works, his life, his wife’s diaries and so on. The problem, as singer/comedian Anna Russell says about analyses of the Ring Cycle, “Analyses of the Ring are frequently given by a great expert for the edification of other great experts, but these are usually so esoteric as to leave the average person as befogged as before. And I think this is inclined to discourage him to go altogether. And this is a shame as the Ring is a great work provided you can make any sense out of it!”

Many of these volumes are excellent, but few are a place to start for the newcomer. Fortunately, there is one excellent introduction that happened to be published about the time I started working on Wagnerian roles. William Berger’s Wagner without Fear. Berger knows the subject matter well but presents what you need to know without the pretentiousness of so many writers on this subject. Best of all, it’s a practical guide with recommendations for planning your attendance at a performance (including advice on where the long stretches are, the exceptionally long acts for which one will want to prepare appropriately with a visit to the facilities beforehand!

This is a readable and enjoyable book that covers all aspects of the composer, his works and the controversies that surround him. There are also recommendations for recordings and videos. For anyone who wants to know more about Wagner and his operas, I can think of no better place to start. Fortunately, Penguin still has this book in print. Also recommended are his books on Verdi and Puccini. 

For an even lighter approach to Wagner, here are two of my favorites: Anna Russell’s introduction to the Ring Cycle and the Loony Tunes classic What’s Opera, Doc? 

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Everything Old Is New Again

Giulio Caccini. Le nuove musiche. Edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock. A-R Editions, 1970. 

Sometimes it is useful to reread something that you read and thought you understood. Going back to a book or article you read before with fresh eyes and more experiences will sometimes lead to revelations. That happened to me recently when Bel Canto Book Club was reading and discussing James Stark’s Bel Canto. Yes, I had read and discussed the book in graduate school, but somehow I had overlooked some useful ideas, in this case his discussion of Caccini’s Le nuove musiche. 

Many of Caccini’s instructions in Le Nuove Musiche are there to encourage the new freedom of expression available to solo singers who no longer had to abide by the rigidity of the contrapuntal madrigal in which any alteration might wreak havoc on the strict rules of modal counterpoint. It’s not that there was no freedom of expression in the solo madrigal, but not nearly to the extent that the new style allows. 

“But Caccini was primarily a singer, and for all his humanistic theorizing about Platonic priorities of text over music, speech over song, word over tone, his madrigals triumph more by their melodious grace vocalistic charm than by powerful or profound textual communication. Forgoing the madirgalists’ arsenal of text-expressive imagery, Caccini armed himself only with the sensuous weapons of the highly trained voice—its agility, its fluidity, its sheer beauty of sound.” (H. Wiley Hitchcock, “Introduction”, 10)

Much of what we consider bel canto begins with those ideas. Caccini unleashes the imagination of the singer to express through ornamentation and beautiful singing in a way that had been limited up to that point. As a teacher, my studio is almost exclusively made up of singers coming from a choral background (and hoping to continue that by becoming choir directors), convincing them that not only is it okay to take liberties with the printed notation, but that it is actually necessary, is a daily struggle. So I was pleased when re-reading Stark and finding a word that I had somehow overlooked years earlier reading that book for a pedagogy class. That word is sprezzatura. 

“Caccini’s affective singing style was further characterized by sprezzatura, a rhythmic flexibility that allowed for the natural accentuation of the words, and a departure from Renaissance rules of part-writing so as to create dissonances that enhanced the expression of the words. The term sprezzatura had earlier been used by Baldassare Castiglione in Il libro de cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier, 1528), where it was defined as ‘that virtue opposite to affectation…whence springs grace. (Caccini/Hitchcock, 44) Sprezzatura is sometimes translated as nonchalance or negligence.” (Stark, 160)

But sprezzatura is not only about rhythm (although for our purposes it is a big part of it. It is the kind of performance in which someone highly skilled makes the difficult appear easy. Simone Biles, the gymnast, for example, performing near-impossible feats with the grace and apparent naturalness with which the rest of us might perform ordinary tasks.  Such casualness and ease in musicianship and diction is obviously not easily achieved but it must be the goal. Last week I posted a clip of Beverly Sills singing Auber’s “Ah! vous dirais-je, maman” ( Just as impressive as her beautiful performance of exceedingly difficult music is the way in which she makes it all appear easy. It would be interesting to know how many hours in the practice room were required to make something so difficult seem so natural. It’s as if she were playing a game, not laboring over a difficult task. 

There is of course much more in Caccini’s Introduction to Le nuove musiche and it bears another reading, especially if you are performing music from the early baroque. But even if you aren’t, so much of what Caccini advocated as a singer, teacher and composer is still relevant to singers today regardless of the style of music they are performing.  Hitchcock’s edition is in most college libraries, so it is easy enough to find. And of course, the Introduction is reprinted in many music history books. If you haven’t read it in a while, take a few minutes revisit it.  

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Che volete cantare?

A few weeks ago, I highlighted many “trunk arias” mentioned in Hillary Poriss’s excellent book Changing the Score. The practice of inserted foreign arias into operas went into decline by the mid-19th century with one exception: the lesson scene in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. That moment alone deserves special attention (and Poriss devotes many pages to it). 

The scene is a familiar one to operagoers. Count Almaviva, disguised as the student Lindoro, and double-disguised as Rosina’s music teacher asks her, “Che volete cantare?” As Poriss jokingly notes, “No other question in the operatic repertory has ever received a greater variety of responses.”

Lessons scenes were not unusual in 18th century opere buffe nor was the practice of the prima donna singing whatever she wanted in place of the music the composer had written for that scene (if they even bothered to write any at all). Rossini’s aria for the lesson scene is “Contro il cor.” It is a fine aria in no need of replacement but replace it they did!

Even during Rossini’s lifetime, Rosinas often chose another, showier (and in most cases much longer) Rossini arias, most often “Tu che accendi/Di tanti palpiti” from Tancredi. The showpiece from La Cenerentola: “Nacqui all’affanno e al pianto”. “Oggetto amabile” from Sigismondo. “Quel dirmi, oh Dio” from La pietra del paragone. Some even moved “Una voce poco fa” to the lesson scene!

Soon divas were looking beyond Rossini and singing something by Pacini, Donizetti, Bellini and their contemporaries and predecessors. And later they even began adding Verdi arias into the mix. You may notice that this also shows us the shift in casting of the role of Rosina from mezzo to soprano.

“Deh consola i voti miei” scena and rondo by Pietro Generali

The rondo finale from Pacini’s Gli Arabi nelle Gallie

“Forse un destin che intendere/V’era un di” from Donizetti’s Parisina

“Ernani!…Ernani involami” (Ernani)

“Vieni, t’affretta” (Macbeth)

(Even I must admit that the first two are very obscure. I included a link to Caballé singing the Parisina aria. The last two are well-known and easy to find.)

Later, theme and variation arias became popular in the lesson scene. 

“Ah! Vous dirai-je maman” (Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star) from Le toréador by Adolphe Adam

(Even if this piece is unfamiliar, everyone will know the tune. I have provided a link to a performance of Beverly Sills and company performing this in a production of Barbiere which shows how recently this aria was still being performed. This is a fun and audience-pleasing piece for recitals. Curiously when searching I found mostly pianists of the current generation performing a transcription of it.)

Air à la tyrolienne by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (includes yodeling!)

“Air varié” by Pierre Rode (This one is curious as it is a violin piece! It is only fair that singers perform transcriptions of instrumental pieces considering how often the reverse happens!)

Beginning with Patti and extending to about WWI it became common for Rosinas to sing 3-4 arias in the lesson scene giving the audience a mini-concert at that point, although even before Patti, there were singers doing more than singing one aria in that scene. Pauline Viardot often sang a selection of Spanish songs and then played some Chopin Marzurkas on the piano in the lesson scene. 

Marcella Sembrich (whom many critics considered to be Patti’s rightful successor) offered “Voci di primavera” (Frühlingstimmen) a concert aria by Johann Strauss Jr, followed by the song “Zyczenie” (Maiden’s Wish) by Chopin (she accompanied herself on the piano for the Chopin) and then concluded with “Ah! Non giunge” from Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Later she replaced the last piece with an unidentified German lullaby and Lucia’s Mad Scene.

In the following generations the following pieces were commonly found in various combinations in the lesson scene:

Home Sweet Home by Sir Henry Bishop

Il bacio by Luigi Arditi

“The Last Rose of Summer” for Flotow’s Martha

The Swiss Echo Song by Karl Anton Florian Eckert

“Carnival of Venice” a variation set by Jules Benedict

“Charmant oiseau” from Félicien David’s Le perle du Brésil

“Je suis Titania” from Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon

The Belle Song from Lakmé by Leo Delibes

The mad scene from Lucia!

Nellie Melba favored “Sévillane” by Massenet and “Serenata” by Tosti

After WW II some of the excesses started to be curtailed and many singers went back to singing “Contro il cor” in the lesson scene. Maria Callas did as much as anyone to advocate to returning Rossini’s original aria to the mad scene with her popular 1957 recording of the complete opera. We still hear interpolations in that scene, although usually it is another Rossini aria like the Rondo from La Donna del Lago. (I heard Cecilia Bartoli perform that aria in the lesson scene in 1992.) I can’t remember hearing of a mini-concert performed at that moment in my lifetime. 

This is an interesting look at performance practice over the past 200 years. It also shows how the changes in casting of the role of Rosina and the many ups and downs of various pieces in the mezzo and soprano repertoire. Many of these pieces will be familiar. Some are easily found in some of the older coloratura anthologies, while others will likely be completely unknown to most singers and opera fans today. 

Many of these are worthy of rediscover. The lighter pieces would be appropriate for pops concerts or less formal events. Curiously, performances of many of these pieces are easier to find in piano or orchestral transcriptions than sung by sopranos. Transcriptions (like the variations) have made a huge comeback with pianists and yet classical singers and their teachers mostly remain in the purist camp. Not all of these will be to everyone’s taste, but we should bring back some fun to accompany the high notes!

Update: More Lesson Scene Interpolations!

Dr. Hilary Poriss has compiled a database of all the interpolations into the lesson scene that she and her colleagues could find. It’s much more extensive than the list I posted in an earlier blog post and includes a great deal of repertoire that will be of interest to singers. It also includes links to sources, reviews and in some cases the music itself. Here is the link. Enjoy.

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

The Garcia Family, Part II: Maria Malibran

Bushnell, Howard. Maria Malibran: A Biography of the Singer. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979

Fitzlyon, April. Maria Malibran: Diva of the Romantic Age. London: Souvenir Press, 1987.

Last week while discussing Hillary Poriss’s excellent book on the trunk aria, a name came up that will likely show up many times on this blog: Maria Malibran. This would be a good time to continue looking at the Garcia family with the older sister Maria Malibran. As she did not leave behind any writings of her own other than correspondence and some romances, we will look at two English-language biographies of this legendary singer. 

Maria Malibran was opera’s first international superstar. Many opera singers before her had won fame and a few even fortune but most were attached to one city or region, or at least one at a time. Malibran’s fame not only spanned countries, but also continents. Many would follow, but she was the first. When reading the biographies for Maria Malibran, of the artistic triumphs, controversies, scandals and mythology that sprouted around her, one cannot help but be reminded of Maria Callas. 

Like Callas she modernized operatic acting. Malibran entered an operatic world of stylized physical gestures that Giuditta Pasta had mastered. Pasta was “the perfection of classical style” with “the noble gestures, her every movement accomplished with the full awareness that she was acting for an audience.” Her performances were perfectly executed but there were no surprises. “She had carefully memorized on musical and dramatic interpretation.” Malibran’s style was new for her own time. She was more spontaneous in her movements and expressions. She was the embodiment of the new Romantic style in almost every sense of that term. 

Bushnell’s biography gives a detailed look at her life and work. Fitzlyon’s book is more controversial than Bushnell’s. Both recount the abuse all three children suffered at the hands of their father whose methods of discipline were considered harsh even by the standards of their time, but Fitzlyon also claims that there is sufficient reason to believe that Maria was sexually abused by her father. Her argument is based on Maria’s behavior, especially during visits from her father, that is consistent with that of sexual abuse victims. Radomski disputes that in his biography of Garcia (see my previous blog post about that excellent biography) pointing out that there is no record of Malibran ever confiding about any such abuse to any of her confidants, of which she had many. I will take no side here, but all of this makes for interesting reading. 

It was a fascinating, though tragically brief, life and one that had a profound impact on the 19th century opera world. Both biographies are recommended. There is a lot to unpack here and given how long it has been since the last English language book on Malibran, I would say we are due for another, fresh look at her life and work. 

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Changing the Score

Poriss, Hilary. Changing the Score: Arias, Prima Donnas, and the Authority of Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Until recently much of musicology was focused on the lives of composers and putting out accurate editions of their work. That was important work, especially considering how many misprints and mistakes there were in the available published scores of so much of the vocal literature. With so much of that work completed or at least underway, many are shifting their focus to the study of musical culture.  Not just what music was composed but how it was performed and disseminated. What would one have heard when attending the opera or a concert or recital? This is especially of interest in opera where the practices of inserting arias or even ensembles, often by other composers, into works was commonplace and even expected. Hillary Poriss’s Changing the Score offers a detailed look at that practice. She focuses mainly on women singers, though not exclusively, focusing on the most common types of insertions and substitutions. 

I recommend this book for several reasons. First, I think it is important for us to understand what performances were like during the era when these operas were written and being widely performed. Second, she clears up a number of misconceptions, especially in showing that the practice extended well into the 19th century and that efforts were still underway to restrict the practice as late and 1870. (And in fact, there are still some substitutions/additions and transpositions that occur in standard repertoire operas to this day.) And finally, it is worth our time to look at some of these “trunk” arias as they might be good additions to recital and concert performances today. If they were of sufficient quality for singers like Giuditta Pasta and Maria Malibran to carry around the orchestra parts with them, they certainly warrant a fresh look today. 

I would also like to point out that knowing how widespread this practice was, it is important to remember that when reading that a particular singer sang a certain role, because that does not mean they sang exactly what is printed in our Ricordi or Bärenreiter scholarly edition of the score. In many cases it means nothing of the sort. Please keep that in mind when reading that a singer sang something that we now associate with a different voice type. Likely she transposed some numbers, left some passages out and inserted arias deemed to be more appropriate to her voice. 

Here are some links to some of these arias. Interestingly, several them are available on because they were published separately from the opera score due to their popularity even though the opera they are from fell into obscurity. Here are some examples.  Here are some examples noted by Poriss on pages 78-81.

For mezzo-soprano: Tu che I miseri conforti/Di tanti palpiti from Tancredi by Rossini

It seems odd to include this on the list. This was for most of the 19th century the most popular opera in the repertoire, so much so that Wagner quotes it in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (his only quotation other than the Dresden Amen in Parsifal). I love this aria and sadly almost never hear it. If this fits your voice, please add it to your repertoire!

For mezzo-soprano: Or che son vicino a te from Il Conte di Lenosse by Giuseppe Nicolini

Nicolini was once a prolific and prominent composer. There are several more composers like him on this list. 

For soprano, mezzo-soprano or tenor: I soave e bel contento/I tuoi frequenti palpiti from Niobe by Giovanni Pacini

Yes, singers from all three Fächer inserted this aria into performances of other operas!

For soprano: Nell’ebbrezza dell’amore from Ines de Castro by Giuseppe Persiani 

This opera was originally composed for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples with an opening night cast that included Maria Malibran and Gabriel-Louis Duprez. It was a huge hit and this aria remained popular long after the opera faded from view.

For soprano: Alla gioia, ed al piacer from Bianca e Fernando by Bellini

For soprano: from Donizetti’s Ugo, conte di Parigi

This opera premiered in the same Carnaval season as Bellini’s Norma and with the same singers, but without the same success.

For tenor: Ma dov’è? Perchè fugge I miei sguardi from Cesare in Egitto by Giovanni Pacini

Of the mostly forgotten bel canto composers, Pacini is the one most unjustly neglected. He was successful in his own time and known especially for his brilliant cabalette. Fortunately, recordings of many of his work exist from Opera Rara and other groups devoted to less well-known operas. 

For baritone: Era notte oscura, oscura from Contessa di Foresen by Valentino Fioravanti

Fioravanti is another prolific but alas now forgotten composer of the bel canto era. I was not able to find an online score, but it will be possible to find this and most of the rest in libraries.

Giuditta Pasta’s favorite Insertion arias:

In addition to the aforementioned Tu che accendi/Di tanti palpiti from Tancredi by Rossini (1813) and Il soave e bel contento/I tuoi frequenti palpiti from Niobe by Pacini (1826) Poriss lists some of Pasta’s favorite trunk arias. 

Several are by Rossini or Bellini:

Elena! oh tu, che chiamo from La donna del lago by Rossini (1819)

Ah! si per voi già sento from Otello by Rossini (1816)

Ah! quel giorno ognor rammento from Semiramide by Rossini (1823)

Or sei pago, o ciel tremendo from Il pirata by Bellini (1829)

Bell’alme avventurose from Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra by Rossini (1815)

Dolci d’amor parole from Tancredi by Rossini 

This aria was composed by Rossini for the first Tancredi, Adelaide Malanotte, to sing instead of Tu che accendi/Di tanti palpiti.

There are also other trunk arias less well known to modern audiences. 

Perchè straziarmi tanto from Giulio Cesare nelle Gallie by Giuseppe Nicolini (1819)

Falate imagine d’un primo affetto from an unidentified opera by Giovanni Pacini (1819)

Frenar vorrei le lagrime from La morte di Semiramide by Marcos Antonio Portogallo (1801)

Prima s’avvezzi al lamp from Fedra by Ferdinando Orlandi (1820)

Lungi dal caro ben from La sposa Fedele by Giovanni Pacini (1819)

Sommo ciel from Giulietta e Romeo by Niccolò Zingarelli (1796)

Ah, come rapida fuggi la speme/L’aspetto adoribile from Il crociato in Egitto by Meyerbeer (1824, rev. 1825) (The cavatina was composed by Meyerbeer for Pasta in the revised version of the opera. The origin of the cabaletta is unknow although Poriss cites Giuseppe Nicolini as its possible composer.)

Il braccio mio conquisse/Or che son vicino a te from Il conte di Lenosse by Giuseppe Nicolini (1820)

It was not just arias that singers added into other works. Sometimes duets and other ensembles were inserted as well, but perhaps the strangest case is one in which it became common to replace an entire scene. The practice of substituting the ending of Romeo e Giulietta by Niccolò Vaccai (BCBC’s patron saint!) for that of Bellini’s I Capuleti e Montecchi. Although Maria Malibran did not originate this practice, she performed the opera this way so often that her name because attached to the practice so that it was often referred to as alla Malibran. Poriss devotes an entire chapter to this particular practice offering reasons that Vaccai’s ending might have been found preferable to Bellini’s. (Note: Romeo’s aria from Vaccai’s version “Ah, se tu dormi, svegliati” is also worth investigating.

As an addendum, Poriss cites two books that will be of interest for anyone wanting to know how opera really worked both as an art and as a business in the 19th century:

Giovanni Valle. Cenni teorico-pratici sulle aziende teatrale. 1823 (Available online!) A detailed guidebook of standard theatrical practices from that time.

Nicola Tacchinardi. Dell’opera in musica sul teatro italiano e de’ suoi difetti. 1833. (copies of the 1995 facsimile edition are available for around 10 euros or through Interlibrary loan.) Tacchinardi was a tenor well versed in the practices of that era. He often inserted the aria â€œMa dov’è? perchè fugge i miei sguardi” from Pacini’s La sacerdotessa d’Irminsul (an opera with a plot similar to Bellini’s Norma). 

That is a lot of information from a book that is just a little over 200 pages, and I have saved some of it for another blog post! There is a lot more to bel canto than Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti (not that they did not provide us with more than enough music!) There are some real gems here, much of it, to quote my teacher and mentor Dr. Jeffrey Snider, of “suitable doctoral obscurity.” It is easy to imagine several lecture-recital topics along these lines. Enjoy!

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

The Garcia Family, Part I

Radomski, James. Manuel Garcia (1775-1832): Chronicle of the Life of a Bel Canto Tenor at the Dawn of Romanticism. Oxford University Press, 2000.

James Stark (the subject of my previous post and also many weeks of Zoom Book Club meetings) ends his discussion of bel canto with the following quote from Blanche Marchesi:

It would be utterly impossible to write anything serious about singing if one did not start with the consecrated name of Garcia. The Garcia family were the founders of the singing school in which knowledge of the physiology of the voice goes hand in hand with all the great traditions of style.

Blanche Marchesi, The Singer’s Pilgrimage, 1923, p. 13

Since there is so much written by and about each member of the family, I think it’s wise to look at the biographies of each as well as their individual writings on singing. The Garcia family, Manuel Garcia I and his second (?) wife Joaquina and their three children Manuel Garcia II, Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot, were each known as singers and teachers in their own time and in many ways much of what we still expect of singers and how we train them is descended from the singing, teaching and writings of this illustrious family. Fortunately there is no shortage of English language sources about this family. (If only the same could be true about other significant singers!)

I’ll start with the elder Manuel Garcia. Radomski’s biography is thoroughly researched and does an excellent job of placing the elder Garcia in the musical worlds he inhabited in Spain, Italy, France, and even the USA and Mexico! In addition to a singing career, he was also a composer, teacher and impresario, producing performances featuring the family in the new world. All of this is a very long story and very much worth reading not just to learn more about this one influential singer (he was the first Count Almaviva among the many roles he created) but for insight into the musical world singers of this era lived and worked. 

In the case of Garcia, researching this biography was complicated by the fact that Garcia was neither honest nor forthcoming about his origins or upbringing, but Radomski has done as well as one could hope in sorting out the fact from the fiction. For example, there is some confusion about whether Garcia’s first marriage was ever annulled or if he ever married Joaquina Sitches (a comprimaria singer who never had any pretensions of being a prima donna). Radomski does his best to sort out what is from what is not known, but much mystery still remains on this and so many other subjects.

In addition to being a singer, teacher and impresario (he produced the first Italian opera performances in the United States featuring his own family in the leading roles), he also composed (“Yo que soy contrabandista,” a polo, is the most famous piece from Garcia’s opera El poeta calculista, and probably the best known piece that he wrote.) and he also published a treatise on singing (Exercises and Method for singing, with an accompaniment for the piano forte, composed and dedicated to Miss Frances Mary Thompson by Manuel Garcia (London: T. Boosey & Co. Importers and Publishers of Foreign Music, [1824}. The English edition was published first. French edition, which is available at was published later.

Of particular interest to BCBCers will be Garcia’s ideas about singing which Radomski summarizes (pp. 278-79):

  1. A constant exposure to all kinds of music from an early age (at home, on-stage, attending concerts). Exposure to professional musicians at home in an informal environment, opportunity to hear professionals practice. 
  2. Early education (from age 5 or thereabouts) in piano, harmony, and counterpoint with the best teachers available.
  3. Extensive early study of languages. 
  4. Later, careful study of voice culture through solfège, scales. 
    • Breathing is slow, relaxes, a natural expression of the face is maintained.
    • Shoulders are held back, as when the arms are crossed behind the back.
    • A tone is attacked piano, swells to forte, then diminished; there is no aspiration (ha, he, hi, ho, hu) before the tone.
    • A smooth connection between tones is maintained; one moves directly from tone to tone without scooping (the latter being considered a French characteristic).
    • High notes, being delicate, are not overworked.
    • Emphasis, while practicing is on the middle and lower registers.
    • Chest tones are carefully, but strongly developed in all female voices.
    • Falsetto is developed in male voices.
  5. Songs are first practiced without words.
  6. Thereafter, all possible expression is drawn from each word.
  7. Students, from the beginning learn to improvise ten to twenty variations of a given line (examples are given in his method and that of his son).
  8. Musicianship is fostered through a cappella ensemble singing.
  9. Confidence is given through studio recitals, including chamber operas.
  10. Hard work is demanded severely by the teacher.
  11. At the same time, knowing how to practice (quality) is more important than practice itself (quantity).
  12. Timidity (the attitude of “I can’t”) is severely reproved by the teacher. Even fear tactics are used to instill a readiness to obey the teacher’s commands.
  13. Musical spirit, energy, and taste are acquired by coming into contact with that of the teacher.

Interesting, no? It also gives us a good idea of how Manuel II, Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot were trained and foundation of many of their own ideas about singing. I’m hoping we can schedule a Zoom call at some point and discuss this list, assuming we can get through all that in an hour.

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

James Stark: Bel Canto, A History

James Stark. Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. 

If you have been a Boot Camper for any time at all you will have noticed that many of us here are into reading historical treatises on singing. So there was no better choice for the first selection for our Book Club than James Stark’s Bel Canto.  I first read this book in a graduate course on the history of vocal pedagogy at University of North Texas with Dr. Stephen Austin. It made for an excellent framework in which to read treatises by Garcia, Lamperti and other famous pedagogues of the last few hundred years. Many of the issues were and are quite controversial (which led to lively discussions in our Wednesday night group). I know I have learned so many new things re-reading it, especially with other singers and teachers each contributing their experience and insight.

Stark does a great job of organizing the vast amount of writing on vocal pedagogy breaking it up into chapters on the onset (The Coup de la Glotte: A Stroke of Genius), resonance (Chiaroscuro: The Tractable Tract), registration (Registers: Some Tough Breaks), breathing (Appoggio: The Breath Be Damned!), vibrato (Vocal Tremulousness: The Pulse of Singing), style (Idiom and Expression: The Soul of Singing), and the very meaning of bel canto (Bel Canto: Context and Controversy). Stark’s writing is clear and ideas are thoroughly discussed, however, there’s no avoiding the confusion that arises from a lack of consistent terminology with which to discuss the singing voice. Confusion is therefore inevitable and much time has been spent in Book Club detangling some of the ideas presented. But that also made for some of the most lively and informative discussions. If you are a member of Bel Canto Boot Camp, I highly recommend joining the Book Club!

None of these topics is without controversy, of course. Here are a few examples:

On the onset Stark sides with Garcia in advocating for a light glottal stroke at the onset (coup de la glotte). In most of the vocal ped literature we read negative comments about the glottal onset, but according to Stark (who prefers the term firm phonation to glottal): 

In the instant before phonation begins, the arytenoid cartilages are drawn firmly together. During phonation, the combined muscular forces of adductive tension, medial compression, and longitudinal tension maintain strong glottal resistance to the breath. There is a large closed quotient of the folds, a vertical phase difference in the pattern of closure, and a muco-undulatory wave that may affect voice quality. Strong glottal resistance leads to raised breath pressures and low rates of airflow through the glottis. The resulting voice quality at the sound source is rich in high-frequency components.  (p. 31)

Stark also spends a few pages debunking the application of the “Bernoulli Effect” to the vocal onset. 

One further debate about the coup de la glotte represents yet another misunderstanding of Garcia’s theory and is also related to the question of muscular balance versus relaxation. This twist grew out of an infatuation with the aerodynamic principle known as the ‘Bernoulli effect.’ It serves as a case history in how a theory can be shoehorned into a misbegotten shape in order to fit a new concept. (p. 22)

At the beginning of a chapter-long discussion of breath and appoggio:

I have seen some professional singers with heaving chests, some with protruding bellies, some with raised shoulders, and some with bouncing epigastriums, all of whom sang beautifully, regardless of their breathing methods. I have also seen awkward postures that have not adversely affected good singing…. (p. 92)

There’s much more. It’s a book rich in sources and context that leads to further discussion and in many cases suggests the need for further research, which, of course, is still ongoing. I think those of us in the Book Club have enjoyed our weekly meetings. There are still a couple left Wednesdays at 8pm (EST) for any Boot Camp members who still want to join.